Eat Well

Why Mushrooms Should Be the New Wagyu

Approximately three times a week, I seriously consider starting a new career.

Usually, the idea springs from a personal need which, to my mind, isn’t being fulfilled fast enough (i.e. instantaneously).

I also don’t let little things like my age, a lack of related education, or an absence of aptitude slow my racing imagination.

Which is why I briefly contemplated becoming a dermatologist yesterday.

This was only slightly less realistic than last week’s plan to become a home appliance repair person, which we are currently in desperate need of, here on the Sunshine Coast.

Occasionally, however, I hit on an idea that sticks.

(I considered the concept for this blog for five solid years before deciding to leave a very nice job in local government to pursue it.)

These days, my mind has turned toward a more earthy opportunity.

I’m fascinated by the idea of growing mushrooms as a replacement for meat.

WHY WE SHOULDN’T EAT ANIMALS (BUT DO)

Most of us know that our collective desire to eat animals is a leading cause of major environmental damage, including the devastating destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and the ongoing buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere (aka climate change).

Animal agriculture also uses A LOT of water.

In fact, it has been estimated that it takes 2400 litres of water to produce one hamburger. (Yes, you read that right!)

Beef burgers taste really good! Unfortunately, eating them is really bad for the earth. (Photo by amirali mirhashemian)

Then there’s the myriad ethical issues relating to how we treat our livestock AND the well-documented negative health consequences associated with eating too many animal products.

Negating all of these (really excellent) reasons to reduce meat consumption, of course, is the fact that cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens taste so darn good.

And, in my experience, we haven’t done a great job of creating equally delicious substitutes.

ISO: VIABLE MEAT SUBSTITUTE

Most of the veggie burgers I’ve tried have been black bean, lentil, or grain-based – which means they tasted OK with plenty of lettuce, ketchup, mayo, and mustard slathered on, but seriously lacked the satisfying tooth-feel and juiciness associated with beef.

So, I was intrigued when I first heard about “Beyond Beef”, the animal-free burger launched in 2019 on the promise of a more “meat-like” experience.

I wasn’t the only one.

Consumers went wild for the concept, with stocking restaurants (like our local A&W) quickly selling out of the product.

Our local A&W sold out of Beyond Meat burgers within days of its launch in July 2018.

Investors jumped on board too, pushing the valuation of parent company, Beyond Meat (BM), from USD $240 million (USD $25/share) to about USD $10 billion (USD $235/share) in under three months.

Things were looking up for cows, BM shareholders, and the environment!

Then, critics began to take a closer look at the faux meats, questioning their cost (more expensive than beef), their nutritional value (not particularly healthy), and their highly processed nature.

Additionally, many consumer reviews, like this one, were middling, at best.

Almost as quickly as it rose, demand for the “Beyond” products started to fall, with the company’s share price now sitting at about USD $13/share.

(In August 2023, Beyond Meat reported a 30% decline in its Q2 earnings, and a 24% decrease in its volume of products sold.)

Which bring us to… mushrooms!

FRANKENFOODS GET AN “F”

If nothing else, the Beyond Meat narrative clearly demonstrates a strong consumer desire for meat substitutes.

We really want to change our animal-eating ways, for all the medical, environmental, and ethical reasons discussed earlier.

We’re just not willing to do so at the expense of our health, our wallets, or (especially) our taste buds.

I think the story also shows a heightened attention to the provenance of our meals, and a growing rejection of ultra-processed “frankenfoods”.

Thanks to the alerts raised by nutritionists around the world, we’ve grown wary of foods that bear absolutely no resemblance to anything found in nature. (Doritos, I’m looking at you!)

I think this wariness may also impede the eventual uptake of various lab-grown meats currently under development, but that remains to be seen.

MUSHROOMS; ALL PROS, NO CONS

Anyway, I believe we already have a near-perfect solution to the world’s meat-reduction challenge.

close up of oyster mushrooms

That’s right! Mushrooms!!

It’s an easy case to make.

They’re environmentally friendly, requiring significantly less land, energy, and water to grow than animal food sources.

They’re super nutritious, delivering protein, fiber, and several other important nutrients, including B vitamins and vitamin D, in a low-fat, low-calorie package. 

They’re a “whole” food your grandma would recognize.

And, with multiple diverse fungi varieties and cooking techniques to choose from, your options for creating a variety of freaking delicious mushroom-based meals are unlimited!

EATING VEGETARIAN (NO SACRIFICE REQUIRED)

Returning for a moment to my experience with veggie burgers, I’d long realized the best versions were made from a grilled portabello mushroom cap.

Tasty, juicy, and meaty in texture, I think portabellos offer the closest thing available to a traditional hamburger experience, without any of the traditional drawbacks.

I’ve also had great success with Smitten Kitchen’s mushroom bourguignon recipe, which similarly substitutes portabellos for beef.

Mushroom Bourguignon – delicious, hearty, and meat-free.

So, I was already actively thinking about increasing my mushroom intake in order to reduce my animal consumption when I stumbled across a video of chef Derek Sarno making souvlaki from oyster mushrooms.

The end result looked so incredibly meaty and delicious, I instantly started wondering how to source oyster mushrooms locally (and then whether I should just go ahead and become a full-time mushroom farmer. 😊)

IT’S ALL IN THE TECHNIQUE

Fundamental to Sarno’s recipe was a simple cooking technique designed to supercharge the natural meatiness of mushrooms.

Very briefly, the method is:

Place second cast iron pan on top of mushrooms to compress them.
  • Place whole mushrooms or mushroom clusters in a hot cast iron pan with a little bit of oil and salt. Brown on one side and flip.
  • Place a second cast iron pan on top of the mushrooms and push down on its cooking surface to release excess water and compress mushroom fibers. (You may need to protect your fingers with a tea towel if the surface of the second pan is very hot.)
  • After a few minutes, stop actively pressing on the cast iron pan but leave it in place. The weight of the pan will continue working to compress the mushrooms as they cook.
  • Season/prepare the mushrooms according to recipe*.

*N.B. the exact timing and method for seasoning and finishing the mushrooms will vary with recipe

TASTING IS BELIEVING

Happily, I can confirm that the pressing technique works as promised!

Within a week of seeing the souvlaki demonstration, I’d found a local mushroom grower, purchased 500 grams of lion’s mane mushrooms, and used Sarno’s method to prepare a small pan of jerk “chicken”.

And reader, I swear to you that I COULD NOT TELL it wasn’t the usual boneless, skinless chicken breast I’ve always used to make this family favourite.

Looks, tastes and smells just like jerk chicken – but it’s not!

In fact, I thought it looked, smelled, and tasted exactly the same!

But maybe I’d brainwashed myself? I really wanted mushrooms to be an easy meat substitute.

What I needed was a less-invested guinea pig.

Maybe even one that had never considered giving up his meat-loving ways.

As a test, I left a few slices of the jerk “chicken” in the warm fry pan, and disappeared into my bedroom.

When I returned a few minutes later, all of the fungi was gone and my middle son was making himself some toast.

Did you notice anything different about the chicken?” I asked.

No,” he said. “Is there anymore?”

***

THREE MORE THINGS

To learn more about the importance of reducing our meat consumption, and the role mushrooms might play in that:

Listen to this short podcast where CBC hosts Johanna Wagstaffe and Rohit Joseph discuss the big impact we can make by adopting a “flexitarian” diet and some simple steps to get started. (Absolutely no lectures involved.)

Take a look at this “mushroom manifesto” produced by the folks at Wicked Kitchen. It’s packed with fascinating info about fungi, plus a slew of AMAZING mushroom-based recipes.

Watch this video of chef Derek Sarno making Garlic Butter “Steak” N Gravy (skip straight to the 27:15 mark for a total reset on what vegan dishes can look like!)

WHAT DO YOU THINK?   

Have you reduced, or are you trying to reduce, your meat consumption? Do you think that mushrooms are a good substitute for meat?

Please leave me a comment at the bottom of this page.

Do you think other people would enjoy reading this post? Please click the purple button to share on social media. (Thanks so much!)

                                                                         

Elizabeth Quayle has been an avid reader and writer for more than 50 years. Since earning a BA in English Lit (1991) and a Journalism Certificate (1996), she has written professionally for diverse public and private companies, as well as magazines, newspapers, non-profits, and government agencies. She started Live Well Anyway in 2023.

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